Arch of Constantine

There is a grand triumphal arch in Rome just as there is in major cities around the world. Many of them are iconic city symbols, and virtually all celebrate a military victory of some sort. Paris has the Arc de Triomphe, honoring those who fought for France—especially during the Napoleonic Wars. New Delhi has the India Gate, honoring those who fought in the British Indian Army during in World War I and the Afghan Wars. London has the Marble Arch, based on the Arch of Constantine design. Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate, celebrating peace; ironically, it figures prominently as a symbol in many subsequent conflicts. Athens has Hadrian’s Arch, to celebrate Hadrian’s triumphant arrival in the city. Many of the great cities of the world have more than one, and Rome is no exception.

Both the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus in Rome have a dual military and religious significance. The history of the Arch of Constantine lies in the struggle between different factions who both claimed control of the Roman Empire. The arch celebrates the Emperor Constantine’s military victory of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. It also signaled Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, one of the pivotal events that forever changed the religious landscape of the world. This triumphal arch in Rome marked the end of persecution of the followers of Christ and the beginning of the development of Christendom—a movement that would spread around the globe and have lasting repercussions that are still felt today.

Located near the Colosseum and several other ancient historical monuments, the surface of the Arch of Constantine has detailed carvings and bas reliefs over much of its surface. There are panels with sculpted scenes from the life of Septimius Severus, carvings of the Victories, and carved medallions of the rising and setting sun.

The literal history of the Arch of Constantine is also carved over the portion of the arch on the opposite side of the Colosseum in a scene depicting the actual Battle of Milvian Bridge. There is even a carving depicting Constantine’s departure for Milvian Bridge from the seaport of Milan. Four superb Corinthian columns made of yellowish marble from Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa adorn each side of the arch. One of these is actually a replacement, and the original is the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

The history of the Arch of Constantine is also a wonderful record of the development of Roman art. Several of the panels are of quite poor artistic quality—even clumsy. By the time this triumphal arch in Rome was built, the quality of the city’s artistry had devolved. The glory days of Rome’s Golden Age in art were over for a time. In fact, many elements of the arch are actually pieces taken off previous monuments, and these pieces generally exhibit more skilled artistry. Several of these reused elements date as far back as the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Contrast it with the artistically much finer Arch of Titus located near the Roman Forum and built in the first century AD. Nonetheless, the Arch of Constantine is an awe-inspiring edifice. It rises almost 70 feet high, is more than 85 feet wide, and is almost 25 feet deep.

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